Meth epidemic

MARQUETTE – Methamphetamine has become a problem with no easy solution for residents of Marquette County.

“I have stated to juries in methamphetamine trials that this drug should be thought of as the opposite of a gateway drug; perhaps an exit drug, or the last drug on the gamut of drug abuse,” said Marquette County Prosecuting Attorney Matthew Wiese in an email interview. “Hard core drug addicts often end up using methamphetamine. It is reported as one of the most addictive drugs, and that a person can be ‘hooked’ after using it just one time.”

Wiese said his office prosecuted just three meth cases in 2009 and none involved production. In 2010, four meth cases were prosecuted, one involving manufacture.

But Wiese said in 2011, with the advent of the “one-pot” method of cooking meth, the number of cases surged to 41, with 25 involving labs.

One-pots are much simpler than traditional meth labs and require only ingredients and a plastic bottle.

Numbers have since gone down slightly as Marquette County law enforcement agencies have aggressively investigated meth crimes, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of many meth producers, Wiese said.

Wiese said the best way to combat the meth issue is to cut off the supply of the key ingredient needed in the one-pot method – ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.

State Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, has introduced a bill that would help do that by creating a stop-sale notification for psuedoephedrine, requiring felons to obtain a prescription for the drug.

The bill was introduced along with two others in the State Senate that would help stop “smurfing,” an organized group purchase of psuedoephedrine where all individuals buy only the daily, or 30-day, per-person limit, then combine the drug to make a larger quantity of methamphetamine.

Kivela said meth is an issue both sides of the aisle can come together on.

“It is definitely better to work across the aisle on this and many issues,” Kivela said in an email. “Meth is not a Republican or Democrat problem, it is a serious epidemic that is affecting communities all over Michigan. I shared these two bills with my colleagues from southwest Michigan because they have a serious problem in their communities as well.”

Kivela said he watched firsthand as the meth problem grew out of control, taxing first responders and public agencies, and local governments without the resources to adequately fight the battle.

“This was the first issue I started working on and I’ve learned a lot in the process,” Kivela said. “Some of my colleagues refer to me as the ‘Meth guy’ because of it. I do feel we are making progress, not as fast as I’d like though. We recently had a committee hearing on these three bills and expect a vote as soon as (this) week.”

Wiese said even better would be a law requiring everyone using ephedrine or pseudoephedrine – not just felons – to obtain an annual prescription, but pharmaceutical companies are strongly opposed to any further regulation of the drug.

“The problem with this position is that it would very likely substantially reduce the gross sales of this effective sinus medicine, which is exactly why the pharmaceutical companies are opposed to requiring a prescription for this drug,” Wiese said.

But it isn’t just an increase in meth production/use cases that Wiese’s office is seeing as the use of meth continues to plague Marquette County.

“Over the last couple of years, the use and production of methamphetamine has resulted in a significant increase in theft crimes,” Wiese said. “Unfortunately, many of the most violent felony crimes we have handled over the last couple of years have been related to the use or manufacture of methamphetamine.”

That includes a 2011 shooting in Marquette that left one man dead and another in prison after the two had a dispute over a methamphetamine transaction.

Though, meth use and production is not just a criminal problem. The issue reaches its tentacles into the daily lives of the families of those involved in this dangerous activity.

“The number of babies being born to meth addicted parents is alarming, if you talk to the courts they will tell you that a large percentage of their docket involving children has a connection to this drug,” Kivela said. “The cost to the state ranges in the millions of dollars, between law enforcement, clean-ups, incarceration, and treatment alone. Let alone the cost to families.”

Wiese said the danger to others in a place where meth is manufactured is extremely high.

“We have had cases where children and responding social service workers had to be medically treated because of toxic exposure at methamphetamine manufacture sites,” Wiese said.

A hazmat crew has to be called in to clean up manufacturing sites, which Wiese said can costs thousands of dollars.

“Even worse, the ‘one pot method’ uses a combination of ingredients that can create a highly volatile situation,” Wiese added.

Mishandling of the mixture in conjunction with the use of an accelerant – often used in the production of meth – can result in a fiery breach of the “one pot” that resembles a flame thrower. Wiese said the sudden fire is often misinterpreted as an explosion.

This occurred in 2011, when a one-pot cook in Gwinn breached, burning one man over more than 60 percent of his body.

“This is without question the worst drug in society, not only is it a powerfully addictive drug, but the manufacturing of it creates deadly consequence,” Kivela said. “We read almost daily of the contamination, fires, and explosions. It creates hazards for the manufacturers and the law enforcement officials.”

And though he cites the destructive nature of meth, Kivela said harsher laws are not the answer.

“I am of the firm belief that we can’t criminalize this drug away, it’s too addictive,” Kivela said. “The goal of these bills are NOT to put people in jail, but to keep (pseudoephedrine) out of the hands of the people that abuse it.”

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is jstark@miningjournal.net.